Each year the Times publishes snippets of some of the most interesting commencement speeches of the year. Earlier I wrote about the provocative commencement remarks of David Foster Wallace and Ann Patchett, both later published in their entirety as slim volumes.
It seems that this year most orators spoke about the bleak economic conditions that would greet graduates outside the campus. President Obama told Notre Dame graduates that they needed to “find a path back to prosperity.” Even Bud Selig, the commissioner of Major League Baseball, acknowledged “We are living in the most difficult economic environment since the Great Depression.” None of this was the sort of message one normally expects to hear in a commencement address.
The actress Laura Linney had a more traditional message for the graduates of The Julliard School. “Remember that no matter which art you practice, there is no more valuable skill than the ability to listen carefully. Especially when you listen to the music, or listen to the text, listen!”
So too did Larry Page, the co-founder of Google, who spoke to the graduates of the University of Michigan. “I had one of those dreams when I was 23. I suddenly woke up, I was just thinking, What if we download the whole Web and just keep the links? And I grabbed a pen and started writing. Sometimes it is important to wake up and stop dreaming….When a really great dream shows up, grab it.”
The historian David McCullough spoke about the importance of teachers to the graduates of the University of Oklahoma. “There is no such thing as a self-made man or woman…We are all, as were those in whose footsteps we follow, shaped by the influence and examples of countless others—parents, grandparents, friends, rivals. And by those who wrote the music that moves us to our souls, those whose performance on state or on the playing field took our breaths away, those who wrote the great charters which are the bedrock of our system of self-government. And so many who, to our benefit struggled and suffered through times of trouble and grave uncertainty. And by teachers…I want to stress as emphatically as I can the immeasurable importance of teachers.”
To the graduates of the School of Journalism at UC, Berkeley, Barbara Ehrenreich said, “You are going to be trying to carve out a career in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. You are, furthermore, going to be trying to do so within what appears to be a dying industry…Welcome to the American working class.”
I welcomed the timely remarks of Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, to the graduates of Oberlin College: “Dissent will be, and should be, part of your lives. This country was born of dissent (the Revolutionary War), defined by it (the Civil War) and changed profoundly by it. The labor, suffrage and civil rights movements as well as the anti-Vietnam protests all come to mind. Dissent is as America as cherry pie.”
Finally, there was even a speaker who put in a word for literature. It was the playwright John Patrick Shanley who delivered the commencement address at the College of Mount St. Vincent. “…when you leave here today, you may go through a period of unemployment. My suggestion is this: Enjoy the unemployment. Have a second cup of coffee. Go to the park. Read Walt Whitman. Walt Whitman loved being unemployed. I don’t believe he ever did a day’s work in his life. As you may know, he was a poet. If a lot of time goes by and you continue to be unemployed, you may want to consider announcing to all appropriate parties that you have become a poet.”